Family Fun on the Mississippi River

Your whole family will enjoy a trip to the National Great Rivers Museum and Melvin Price Locks and Dam, located along the iconic Mississippi River.

The mighty Mississippi is the stuff of legend. However, if you live in Illinois or the surrounding areas, you might be tempted to view this famous river as simply part of the landscape. Be prepared to consider this natural wonder in a whole new way with a trip to the National Great Rivers Museum and Melvin Price Locks and Dam, located in Alton, Illinois, on the banks of the Mississippi River. 

Through a collaboration with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Meeting of the Rivers Foundation, the 12,000-square-foot facility is a tribute to the majesty of the river and its far-reaching influence. Great news for families: the museum offers free admission for all. 

“The Mississippi is the world’s fourth largest river and it attracts people from all over the world,” says Allison Rhanor, Natural Resources Specialist, Museum Director and member of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “We often hear from our guests that visiting family or friends will say to them: “Take me to the river.’”

The National Great Rivers Museum

Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, the National Great Rivers Museum explores all aspects of the river, including its importance to transportation systems, industry and community evolution. 

“We see the river as a center spoke for the arts, literature, history, geology, economics, ecology – it encompasses so many things,” says Rhanor. 

Children of all ages are drawn to the museum’s interactive touchscreen exhibits, a giant aquarium filled with river fish and hands-on opportunities to experience river management. “One of our most popular attractions is the lock operator exhibit where you control the river’s flow using a simulator,” says Rhanor. 

Other interactive exhibits allow you to go forward and backward in time to see how the growth and flow of the river affect the surrounding areas. Rotating art installations, ecological studies and other temporary exhibits capture the river’s life and changeability. 

The museum also houses a 110-seat state-of-the-art theater with movie screenings as short as nine minutes or as long as 60. “We’ve got something for every age, attention span and interest level,” says Rhanor.

Special events happen all year long, too, so be sure to check the museum’s event calendar.

Melvin Price Locks and Dam
Photo courtesy of National Great Rivers Museum and Melvin Price Locks and Dam

Melvin Price Locks and Dam

Operated by the Army Corps of Engineers, the structurally impressive Melvin Price Locks and Dam is right next to the National Great Rivers Museum. Visitors can watch the dam and locks operate as they allow boats and barges to move through the river. Several tours are available each day. 

”The Melvin Price Locks and Dam have revolutionized river transport,” says Rhanor. “We are able to get larger vessels, such as 15-barge tows, through the dam more quickly due to the larger, more advanced lock structure at Mel Price. The dam maintains enough depth to sustain commercial traffic on the river, and the locks serve as an elevator for boats to get passage from one side of the dam to the other.” 

Speaking of elevators, you can venture into one that takes you 80 feet above ground to get a bird’s eye view – literally – of the stunning natural landscapes that surround the Melvin Price Locks and Dam. Not only can you view the boats and barges as they make their way through the water, but you will also get a glimpse of rare nature scenes, such as a bald eagle nest, which is a huge draw for visitors.

“Because we operate a migratory bird sanctuary across the water, The Melvin Price Locks and Dam is a hot spot for all types of migratory birds. Our resident pair of bald eagles have babies each year and our visitors love watching the little eaglets being fed,” says Rhanor. 

Your first stop along the Mississippi River 

The National Great Rivers Museum and Melvin Price Locks and Dam can be just one part of your family trip along the Great River Road. 

“We are located at the intersection of three amazing American byways,” says Rhanor. “The Great River Road, which is both a National Scenic Byway and an All-American Road, extends from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, while The Meeting of the Great Rivers National Scenic Byway is a 33-mile stretch of road that overlaps with the Great River Road right at our location. Additionally, we are less than 10 miles from where these two overlapping roads intersect with Route 66!”

Besides a visit to the Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary, you can also explore the charming towns and attractions up and down the Mississippi River.

“Our team oversees public lands along 380 river miles. If you are looking to visit other places and see the sights, we are a one-stop shop to help you plan your outdoor itinerary,” Rhanor explains. 

No matter what other byways you take, stopping at the National Great Rivers Museum and Melvin Price Locks and Dam is a great starting point for your river adventure.

“You don’t have to be a nature buff or engineer to enjoy our museum,” Rhanor says. “The river is something that affects just about every other topic there is. Whatever you’re interested in, we have something that will engage you.” 

For more information and to plan your Illinois Mississippi River adventure, click here.

Jennifer Kales
Jennifer Kales
Content editor Jennifer Kales has been in the business of writing for more than 20 years creating advertising copy, blogs, books and everything in between. She loves helping Chicago Parent clients tell their stories in a way that resonates with audiences.

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